Novelist Peter Heller is the keynote speaker at Augusta University’s Writers Weekend.

Adventure novelist Peter Heller to give keynote speech at Augusta University Writers Weekend

Longtime contributor to NPR and award-winning adventure novelist Peter Heller is the keynote speaker at Augusta University’s annual creative writing conference called Writers Weekend on Jan. 24-25.

Anna Harris-Parker, an associate professor of English at Augusta University, said the theme for this year’s conference is “water,” and Heller’s new novel, The River, was a perfect fit.

The book is a compelling story of two college friends on a wilderness canoe trip in northern Canada who are forced to face tremendous obstacles such as a dangerous wildfire, white water and violence.

“Last year, when we started planning for Writers Weekend, I asked some of my creative writing colleagues if they had suggestions for themes,” Harris-Parker said. “One of my colleagues, Jim Minick, suggested rivers since we are the River Region. And I really liked that idea. Coincidentally, around the same time that we started talking about rivers, Peter Heller’s novel, The River, was released last March and I absolutely loved it. So that was pretty perfect.”

Book cover.

Heller, a bestselling novelist of the books The Painter and The Dog Stars, was the first author to agree to participate in this year’s creative writing conference held on the Summerville Campus of Augusta University.

“Getting Peter Heller was incredible because he’s not only a creative writer, but he’s also a journalist, so he appeals to our students in the Department of English and Foreign Languages, but also to communication students,” Harris-Parker said. “And that’s one of our goals. Increasingly, I’m trying to identify writers who do work in multiple genres because we don’t want the conference to be just about creative writing. We want it to appeal to students who are in other disciplines on campus.”

From there, Harris-Parker said she began looking for other authors who had books associated with water.

“I started looking at poetry and Ada Limón is a poet whose work I’ve admired for a long time and I knew that she wrote, somewhat, about the natural world,” Harris-Parker said. “So, I started digging a little bit deeper into her work and she has a book titled, Sharks in the Rivers. It’s not her most recent work, but she’s a wonderful poet and I wanted to include her.”

Not long after contacting her agency and inviting her to Writers Weekend, Limón was awarded the 2019 National Book Critics Circle Award for poetry for her most recent book, The Carrying.

“The book had already been getting a lot of really great buzz and then she won that prize last spring,” Harris-Parker said. “So that made us even more excited to bring her to campus. And Ada writes creative nonfiction too, so she’s a multi-genre author.”

Book cover.

Last spring, Harris-Parker also happened to be reading a new book that came out in 2019 called Miracle Creek by Angie Kim.

The book is set in a small town in Virginia and features a group of people attending a special treatment center that contains a hyperbaric chamber that may cure a range of conditions. However, the chamber suddenly explodes and kills two characters in the book.

As a result, there is an investigation that reveals the explosion doesn’t appear to be an accident and a courtroom drama unfolds.

“I just really loved Miracle Creek because it’s a crime drama, but it is loosely based on some of Angie’s personal experience. She’s a former trial lawyer,” Harris-Parker said. “She also has three sons and one of them had some health issues pretty early on in life. And, in seeking treatment for her son, she and her husband decided to experiment with HBOT therapy.”

Hyperbaric oxygen therapy (HBOT) involves breathing almost pure oxygen in a special room or small chamber.

“I just thought the novel took such a wild approach combining these two extremely different topics: HBOT therapy and a courtroom trial,” Harris-Parker said. “The book is really interesting and I thought she and her work would appeal to a lot of people across both campuses.”

Book cover.

“After all, we have a bloodless medicine program on the Health Sciences Campus and she is a former trial lawyer and we have a criminal justice program on the Summerville Campus,” Harris-Parker added. “She’s a journalist too, in her own right, because she wrote a wonderful piece for Vogue last January right before her novel came out about her son’s experience with HBOT. She has also had articles published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Salon and Slate, so I think she’ll appeal to communication students, too.”

Since the theme for Writers Weekend was expanded from rivers to water, Spencer Wise, an assistant professor of English at Augusta University, suggested a writer from Texas named Juli Berwald, who has written a science book called Spineless.

“Juli Berwald has a Ph.D. in ocean science from the University of Southern California and she is a science textbook writer,” Harris-Parker said. “She has this fascinating nonfiction book called Spineless, which is about jellyfish, but the writing is just really accessible. A lot of people, when they think science writing, they think it is dull, technical writing. But her writing is really gorgeous.”

Berwald has also written for a number of publications, including The New York Times, Nature, National Geographic and Slate.

“We also always try to include local writers or Georgia authors each year at our conference, so our Georgia author this year is Jessica Handler,” Harris-Parker said. “She is author of The Magnetic Girl, which was published last year by Hub City Press in Spartanburg, South Carolina. The book has also done really well. In 2019, it was named one of the “Twenty-Five Books All Georgians Should Read” by the Georgia Center for the Book in Decatur.”

The Magnetic Girl is set in rural Georgia, two decades after the Civil War, and features a 14-year-old girl named Lulu Hurst.

After Lulu convinces a cousin she can conduct electricity with her touch, her father sees a unique opportunity. He grooms his daughter into an electrifying new woman named The Magnetic Girl and she travels the country, captivating enthusiastic crowds by lifting grown men in parlor chairs and throwing them across the stage with her “electrical charges.”

“It’s a wonderful book and, just a few weeks ago, it was nominated for the 2020 Townsend Prize for Fiction by The Chattahoochee Review,” Harris-Parker said. “That’s a pretty prestigious award that she’s been nominated for, so we’re thrilled she’s coming to Augusta University.”

Book cover.

Her publisher from Hub City Press, Meg Reid, has also been invited to speak at Writers Weekend.

“Meg Reid is going to do a publishing talk during lunchtime on Saturday, Jan. 25,” Harris-Parker said. “And, on Friday, she’s also going to give a talk about book design to Augusta University students, exclusively.”

Writers Weekend is funded in part by a grant from South Arts in partnership with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Georgia Council for the Arts.

Additional sponsors include the Pamplin College of Arts, Humanities, and Social Sciences, the Columbia County Public Library, the Office of Student Life and Engagement, The Book Tavern and the Authors Club of Augusta.

This year’s Writers Weekend is being held in honor of the Phinizy Center and Nature Park, Harris-Parker said. And, unless otherwise specified, all events are free and open to the public, and will be held in University Hall on Augusta University’s Summerville Campus.

Two events will be held at the Columbia County Library at 7022 Evans Town Center Blvd. The first is a reading by Berwald at 6 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 23, and the second is a reading by Heller at 1 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 26.

A woman standing by books.
Anna Harris-Parker is an associate professor of English at Augusta University.

Harris-Parker hopes everyone takes advantage of the events offered during Writers Weekend 2020.

“The writers offer book signings, readings, as well as a variety of craft talks and workshops that are all free and open to the public,” Harris-Parker said. “Peter Heller’s keynote reading will take place at 7 p.m. on Friday, Jan. 24, in University Hall. A book signing and a dessert reception, hosted by the Authors Club of Augusta, will be held afterward.”

The dessert reception will also be held in memory of the late Tom Sutherland, who worked at Reese Library and Greenblatt Library for a number of years. Sutherland passed away on Dec. 19.

Get more information about Writers Weekend and the 2020 conference schedule.

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Stacey Eidson

Stacey Eidson is Senior News & Communications Coordinator at Augusta University. Contact her to schedule an interview on this topic or with one of our experts at 706-522-3023 or

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